‘Working scientifically’ involves the processes of science,
including understanding the sorts of questions that are the province
of science; the design of experiments; reasoning and arguing with scientific
evidence; and analysing and interpreting data.
Detailed discussion of working scientifically in primary schools
can be found in Keith Skamp’s Teaching primary science constructively
(Thomson Learning 2004). An example of the forms of knowledge associated
with working scientifically can be found in the Victorian Curriculum
and Standards Framework (CSF) for science, which can be found on the Victorian
Curriculum and Assessment Authority website (internet connection
Key concepts of working scientifically
The activities in this topic are designed to explore the following
- ‘Working scientifically’ involves particular forms
of reasoning with evidence that is different in detail from reasoning
in other areas.
- There is no one ‘scientific method’, but many ways
in which scientists plan to establish ideas and generate evidence
to explore and support these ideas.
- An oft-cited example of scientific method is the controlled experiment,
where the relationship between an effect and a variable is explored,
with other potentially confounding variables controlled (i.e. kept
the same). An example would be the exploration of the effect of the
length of a pendulum on its period of swing, keeping the weight and
swing size the same but varying the length and timing of the swing.
However, for many branches of science, this type of control is not
possible. For instance, in studying ecological systems, in many cases
theories must be established by looking at existing ecosystems with
many variables. In geology and astronomy the idea of controlling
and repeating observations is very different. What is common to all
these areas, however, is the collection of evidence to support or
argue against claims, and reasoning with evidence that attempts to
isolate clear causes for phenomena.
- Working scientifically involves a number of ‘concepts of
evidence’, including the purpose and techniques of focused
observation, the recognition of a scientific question that can be
investigated, the need for repeat measurements and skills in devising
measurement processes, ways of recording data (these can vary considerably)
and representing data for analysis, different experimental designs
and associated principles (e.g. understanding ‘sample size’ in
making observations in the field), and reporting.
Students' alternative conceptions of working scientifically
Research into students' ideas about this topic has identified the
following non-scientific conceptions:
- Students will not immediately see the task of an investigation
as exploring ideas or looking for patterns, but will treat an investigation
simply as 'establishing what is' without thought for considering
- Students have problems recognising what is an investigable question
and will propose questions such as 'What is electricity?' as the
basis for investigation. Their questions need to be worked with and
clarified to become amenable to scientific investigation.
- Students will not understand many of the concepts relating to
measurement-for instance, the reading of a scale, the recording of
comparison measurements using consistent processes, the calibration
of instruments, the need for repeat measurements and the concept
of uncertainty in measurement. They need to be supported in making
- Students can understand the need to control variables in simple
situations (to make the test 'fair'), such as the need to use the
same amount of each type of sugar when comparing the solubility of
sugars. However, they have difficulty in cases of interacting variables
(e.g. finding out the separate effects of weight and length on a
pendulum swing, or the separate effect of light and moisture in determining
where slaters prefer to live).
- Students will not understand the power of laying out data in tables
and graphs, and the use of a table as a design organiser to help
plan a series of measurements.
- Depending on their knowledge and experience, students may have
trouble arguing clearly from evidence.
It has been amply demonstrated that, with appropriate support, even
very young children are capable of distinguishing between observations
and inferences, of asking investigable questions, planning experiments
and arguing from evidence.
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